Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Who's being exploited? Two comics masters from the 50s and 60s

There's an interesting running argument at Michael Barrier's joint about whether or not two comic book artists (mostly of) the 1950s were exploited. Carl Barks drew Disney comics and, in particular, Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge while John Stanley drew Little Lulu. The discussion is in connection with his most recent book: Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books.

The exploitation argument seems to be this: Their work was heads and shoulder above that of their peers, but their pay wasn't commensurate with that superiority. The non-exploitation argument seems to be: 1) their financial arrangements were such that they assumed no financial risk, 2) they had more artistic freedom than their peers, and 3) there is no evidence that the superiority of their work had much effect of sales of the comic books in which that work appeared. 

In order to say a cartoonist was being "exploited" it should be possible to measure, however roughly, the difference that cartoonist's work made to the sales of the comic books to which he contributed. If a cartoonist's work was adding several hundred thousand copies to a comic book's sales, but the cartoonist's page rate was the same as that of his colleagues, exploitation may be the right word.

But as I've written about Barks (on pages 191-92), it's hard to say that the excellence of his work made a significant difference in the sales of Walt Disney's Comics and Donald Duck. Uncle Scrooge was a different matter, of course, but even there the Disney connection was very important. Recall that "Walt Disney's" was unusually large above "Uncle Scrooge" on the cover of the first issue; Western wanted to make sure that its readers knew that this relatively unfamiliar character was part of the familiar Disney universe. In light of Uncle Scrooge's subsequent success, it's easy to forget that Western was assuming the risk that readers would not embrace the new title (as they did not embrace many other Dell tryout titles). That risk was entirely Western's; even if Uncle Scrooge had flopped, Barks would have been paid....

Of course, Western could have rewarded the excellence of Stanley's Lulu work with extra money, and maybe it did, as with Barks's bonuses. Supporters of the exploitation hypothesis might say, of course, that as welcome as such extra pay undoubtedly was, it still was given to the artist by the grace of the publisher, and that as long as the extra payment was discretionary, and not given as a matter of right, the exploitation was only softened and not removed. But I still lean toward the belief that it's hard to find exploitation when the "exploited" artist has assumed no financial risk and has in some ways—as in the opportunity to do artistically superior work—actually benefited from the presumed exploitation.
Then there is the matter of getting credit or a byline. Mark Evanier remarks:
On the matter of bylines, it's a bit murkier because a lot of them didn't particularly want or expect their names on their work. In the seventies, when I hired guys like Pete Alvarado and Owen Fitzgerald to draw comics I was editing, they usually resisted having their names on the work. I believe I gave Pete his first-ever credit on a comic book—even hand-lettered it myself— and I had to talk him into allowing it. At first he said no, then he asked me to credit him as "L. Pencil," then he finally said okay. He had to be talked into allowing it. Part of this was his animation background: He was used to viewing the work as the creation of the company (or at least, a team) and to not being credited, at least that specifically. I think there was also a bit of fear that if the work was signed, readers might write in and say "I don't like Pete Alvarado's work" and I'd give him fewer assignments. Yes, it's not logical that he wouldn't consider the opposite, but Pete, like a lot of his peers, was always worried the flow of work would stop.

In Owen's case, he had a different attitude: Those weren't his characters he was drawing. To him, drawing a Scooby Doo comic was like when he'd drawn Dennis the Menace and it was signed with Hank Ketcham's name. He didn't object much to the credit but he didn't expect or understand it. If he'd drawn Donald Duck or any other comic set in that character's world, he would never have imagined it having any name associated with it but Mr. Disney's.

Owen was one of the most gifted artists I ever knew. When he worked at Hanna-Barbera, others there looked at his work—produced as rapidly as any cartoonist anywhere ever managed—and they'd shake their heads and wonder, "How does he do that?" But as far as I know, at no point in his long career did he ever really think of creating his own strip and trying to become a Charles Schulz or Walt Kelly. The few attempts he made in that direction were at the urging or patronage of others. Left to his own motivations, he was just happy that someone was paying him to draw and that he made enough to not worry about rent or groceries. Is it possible to exploit someone like that? I know it's easy to do so but at what point is an employer obligated to give someone more than they demand?
Concerning what Barks actually made Kim Weston remarks, for example:
So how much did Barks make? In 1948 he made $6,470 plus a $1,441 bonus. According to the US government CPI calculator, that would have the buying power of $63,555.27 plus $14,155.04 in 2014, or over $77,100 in 2014, a pretty decent wage. And 1948 wasn't an especially good year. In 1947 and 1949 he made about $7,400 and $7,300 respectively, not including any bonuses. In 1950 he made about $8,800 and his sales of art and story grew to about $14,900 in 1960, his peak year because he took on a lot of extra drawing work to save up for an extended vacation. And again those numbers don't including any bonuses, which he surely received, at least in the earlier years. According to the CPI calculator, in inflation adjusted dollars that would be about $87,000 to $119,000 now....

Was he worth more? I would say yes! Would it have been appropriate for him to have received a royalty on the endless reprints worldwide of his work? Most definitely. But he still made a good living. And in the end, Disney did allow him to paint characters they owned copyright on for his pleasure and to enhance his retirement income.
Lurking around the edges of this discussion are the tricky linked issues of individual creativity and collective production. Some of these men (they were all men) created the characters they drew, while others drew stories about characters created by others. Some had more latitude in their work than others.

But our major set of ideas about creativity have been organized around the romantic  notion of the individual creative genius. That conception simply doesn't work for cases like these. 

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